• Gail Wilson Kenna

"I am fearless and fearful…a bit of a handicap," Edna O'Brien said in an interview…

Updated: Sep 23

Last week I heard these words in a BBC Dateline/London segment, which a friend taped and later showed to me. What a delight to see clips of Edna in her youth and through her eighth decade, and to listen to her speak in so many different settings. I deeply admire this fearless writer, who calls reading and writing the "two intensities that have buttressed her whole life."

Both of her recent novels (The Little Red Chairs in 2015, and Girl, in 2019) involved extensive research and travel for an aging writer. The truth is that I was hesitant to read Girl. How could O'Brien write a novel without Ireland and the Irish? The protagonist in The Little Red Chairs, leaves Ireland for London, and later travels to the Hague. But Girl is set in Nigeria.

I questioned how O'Brien, the Irish country girl, the mother of two sons, the swinging London resident, the NYC sophisticate, could take on Africa? How could she make her main character one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014? I feared that O'Brien could not pull it off. But she has. And being a fearless writer, Edna ignored the current cultural climate in book publishing. Which is that an author of a literary work must not write stories about those whose race, ethnicity, sex, nationality, and class differ from the writer's. O'Brien ignored this myopic claim. She assumed the voice of Maryam, a girl who escapes from Boko Haram.

I have read the novel only once and have nothing intelligent to say after one read of anything worth reading! Yet I will return to Girl at the end of many Monday postings on Edna O'Brien. My class on her begins on October 8, with her memoir, Country Girl, which includes the following song sung by Paul McCartney to Edna's sons one late evening in their London home. "Oh Edna O'Brien/ She ain't lying/ You gotta listen/ To what she gotta say/ For Edna O'Brien/ She'll have you sighing/ She'll have you crying/ She'll blow your mind away." One son slept through McCartney singing and playing the guitar. The next day he would not believe his brother that one of the Beatles had been in their bedroom!

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